Bruce Stockton has headed up equipment and maintenance for fleets ranging from CFI to Kenan Advantage. Most recently he's hung out his own shingle, consulting with fleets on total cost of ownership and improving uptime, as president of Stockton Solutions.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
HDT: Tell me more about what you're doing now.
Stockton: A lot of fleets want to talk TCO, but not claim it. It is an investment. Also, I’m a substitute bus driver. And I’m finding that school districts keep buses for quite a while, so they’re just now starting to have the problems with emissions [equipment] that we’ve been dealing with.
HDT: You’re a big proponent of fluid analysis, and we’re not talking just oil. How can that help fleets?
Stockton: Yes. Coolant is as important these days as the lubricants. When I was with Kenan Advantage was when I started to first enjoy the data I would get from the oil samples, because they were doing oil samples when I got there. But at a lot of fleets, the question is, who’s looking at the data and what are you doing about it? It’s sort of like going to the doctor and getting a blood test and not having it analyzed to tell you what’s wrong or what’s right. There’s real value in that, which I never saw before because I worked mostly for fleets that traded trucks every three or four years with less than a half million miles and were typically under warranty. [So we didn’t do oil analysis.] What I learned is with the emissions engines – and everybody puts some EGR [cooled exhaust gases] back into the engine – it’s definitely having an effect on the life of the engine and other components.
HDT: I understand you got a big surprise in testing oil not from the crankcase, but in the bulk oil tanks.
Stockton: One of the other things I learned, in some situations, we spec’d a certain brand and weight of oil and then when we tested the bulk oil – which some people don’t think about testing, they assume if that’s what they ordered that’s what the distributor is brining – I was shocked in some cases to discover we were not getting what we had ordered. Either the viscosity, the weight, was off, or we were mixing it with a previous brand or viscosity so we were throwing things off there.
HDT: What did you learn about oil testing and older trucks?
Stockton: As the truck gets older and it gets more miles and hours on it and the DPF and SCR systems start to get taxed, you’ll start to see readings go up. So you need to do oil analysis more often or on a higher percentage of the trucks, if not all the trucks, say after 450,000 miles. To me it almost followed the cleaning interval of the DPF. When the DPF needed cleaned, that’s an indication that you need to start watching the properties in the oil and the coolant.
I was amazed that engine OE folks were telling me in the last few years, 'we don’t place much value in oil samples.' I’ve had engineers tell me that. Yet I was finding trends that lead me to believe that as the [low-] emission engines get older, especially just past that 500,000 mark, which is now what most people are buying as extended warranty, the frequency of your PM has to be more frequent, you have to change the oil more frequently. My non-scientific, non-engineer mind tells me it’s all related back to dumping EGR back into every engine that we run these days.
The OEs… don’t have a lot of good data once the vehicle are out of warranty. When they say change the oil every 50,000 miles, once you’ve changed it at 500,000-mile mark and it’s out of warranty, the OEs don’t have good visibility to failure rates past that point.
HDT: What about testing other fluids?
Stockton: If you look at the OE manuals, when they say to flush and change the coolant, some of those are out to 750,000 miles. By that time the engine’s out of warranty, and if you don’t take samples prior to the warranty failure, you really have no baseline.
Once coolant breaks down and you start to have to add coolant, you really start to mess up the chemistry. I’ve seen engines that have 650,000 miles and are ruined beyond a financially feasible repair – and it’s more related to coolant than to the lubricant. Heads that are getting hot, pitting in the top of the block and the head itself, and a lot of it related to the coolant.
Fuel is another fluid, obviously, and not many fleets spend much time understanding the quality of the fuel they’re getting, whether they’re getting it on the road or their own bulk tank. The tolerances of the injectors and systems today are tighter and tighter.
Polaris isn’t the only one out there doing this, but that’s who I work with, they get enough data and collect enough information that they can really predict what’s going to happen with the heart of the truck, which is the engine.
HDT: Back to the problem of engine problems resulting from changes made to meet EPA emissions requirements. How is that affecting your clients?
Stockton: Things are happening in today’s components we’ve never dealt with before. It’s been seven years [since the 2010 EPA engines], but a lot of fleets are just now seeing what they’ve never seen before. Most LTL fleets keep equipment 10 plus years, but now it’s a different ball game. Fleets that historically keep trucks 10 plus years are realizing they just don’t last that long. You can rebuild them, but the cost to rebuild them these days and be compliant is really expensive. It’s at least 50% more expensive today to rebuild an engine than it was 10 years ago. It’s not uncommon to see a $30,000 invoice to rebuild an engine, and if you have a truck that’s 7 or 8 years old and it’s still being depreciated, you’ve got an asset on the books where you would put more money in it than it would be worth if you sell it. Or do I just take that $30,000 and invest it toward a new piece of equipment?
We’re at a time in the calendar where I think a lot of fleets that keep equipment 10 plus years are realizing that the formula just doesn’t work (anymore). The life cycle, the duty cycle and the depreciation cycle all have to match to be financially feasible.
A lot of my work is coming from [fleets asking] why are our maintenance costs so high and what can we do to get it down. It takes sitting down and explaining what’s going on with their fleet after I look at their data and the mix of their fleet to explain why. On top of that you’ve got additional downtime with all the different sensors and emissions equipment. You have to have more pieces of equipment to do the same amount of work, because you have more trucks down.
HDT: How can data help?
Stockton: I think going forward with all the telematics the OEs are putting on the trucks, they’re going to start having more information than a fleet can swallow. But somebody’s got to be looking at that. The trucks are getting so smart, I think the truck is going to be telling us that it needs service going forward. Because every truck could have a different duty cycle; you could have a truck that has high idle time that needs an oil change at 30,000 miles, where others may be OK at 50,000. Same things we see on new cars – the OE may recommend changing the oil at 5,000 or 10,000 miles, but the algorithm in the software of the car is telling you that you have 20% remaining on your engine life. You may not get to that point based on stops, starts, ignition on and off. I really believe in intelligent predictive maintenance – the truck’s going to be telling us, “Hey, I need my oil changed.”
HDT: What other things are your clients struggling with?
Stockton: Overall maintenance costs and trying to understand why their costs are doing what they’re doing. So much of it is tied to engine and aftertreatment. Seven, eight, nine years ago, aftertreatment wasn’t even a VMRS code, and now it’s one of the top codes causing maintenance costs to increase. Even fleets that trade often are seeing their maintenance costs go up and have to understand why that is.
HDT: What do you tell them?
Stockton: A lot of executives/owners think, “I got off my trade-in cycle and if I get back to that cycle my costs will go down to what they used to be,” and that’s just not going to happen. There are way too many [new] systems that have to be maintained, that have to be touched, and not all of it’s under warranty. So when I hear fleets say we’re going to renew the fleet and get our maintenance costs down to 8 cents a mile or 10 cents a mile, I really have to giggle, because as the trucks continue to advance with their technology and you add more sensors and more sensors … even transmissions now are going to have sensors on them. And it’s migrating back to the end of the truck. Rear ends are going to have sensors to tell them when the lubricant level is too low or the temperature is too high, and it’s going to feed all that data bask to the ECM and the telematics feed it back to the fleet.
[Sensors are] great when they work, but when the sensors fails and it tells you that you have a truck not reporting the rear end temperature, it’s another reason to have to bring the truck in again. [Maybe] it’s not a real problem, but you have to spend money because you had a message tell you to look at this truck.
One of the most frequent is the coolant level sensors. The coolant level is fine but the sensor’s bad, so the light comes on, so your first worry is the truck’s low on coolant. You get the truck in and find out that it’s fine, it just needs a sensor. And if you don’t have it in stock you have to wait on it. I can't tell you the number of times I’ve advised fleets and it said coolant sensor or the level of coolant is bad and they’d put the truck out of service. Just let the truck run till the next time you get it in and replace the sensor.
HDT: What can fleets do with all this data? It’s overwhelming.
Stockton: Yes, it is. If I were 10 years younger, I’d start a business to tell the fleets, direct the data to me, I’ll look at it and sort it out and decipher it and I’ll call you and tell you of the 10 warnings you got today on your 100 trucks, here’s the one you need to pay attention to.
For fleets in their road breakdown units, they’ve got to have some help from the OEs to understand what’s important and what’s just noise. And then they have to have the ability to do something about it and address the ones that are truly critical. But today most fleets just don’t have the people, the time, and/or the expertise to be able to really understand all those codes coming back at them and which ones are important and which are not.
I think there are some decent third-party breakdown call centers that are starting to understand that’s an opportunity to provide a service. And there’s some really progressive dealers out there that are taking on this beyond the sale of the truck. But again the fleet has to listen when that third party or dealer calls and says you have a problem with this particular truck, and here’s the recommendation, that’s when they’ve got to do something about tit.
But it is an overheating amount of data that’s coming at them and they've got to ether have experts on staff or third party experts looking at that information and telling them what’s noise and what’s real.